The Wrong Animal Welfare Debate

A Response to Better Living through Technology

First, a disclaimer. I am indeed one of those urban coastal academics — a vegan at that — who is making a case against the welfare standards of our contemporary animal agricultural system despite having little to no on-farm experience myself. Defenders of the way we raise animals for food will insist that my lack of connection to the farm necessarily means I speak from a position of ignorance, but I would argue that this distance actually helps me see some of the ethical and practical problems of the status quo more clearly than I might otherwise.

With that as a preface, though, I must admit that I found myself nodding in agreement with much of Jenny Splitter’s recent defense of large-scale beef production feedlots, in which she calls into question whether the “free range” alternative of fully grass-fed and pastured cattle production is really a more humane approach. Do small-scale cattle production operations guarantee a better life for cows? Hardly, since animal treatment can vary widely from one farm to the next, while larger farms might have certain advantages in terms of their ability to provide adequate veterinary care. Should consumers be willing to pay extra for products with labels that attest to the natural and humane ways that the animals were treated? I wouldn’t recommend it, given how unaccountable and watered down these standards can be, and how clear it has become that many are simply used as a marketing edge.

Where I split with Splitter, however, is in how we should respond to a recognition that the feedlot has certain welfare advantages to go along with its well-documented disadvantages (not to mention, of course, the multitude of ecological and public health downsides of the feedlot approach, although pastured beef is no panacea on those fronts either). Splitter sees the feedlot as ripe for techno-biological innovations that will minimize animal suffering and feed global beef demand, arguing that “animal welfare can take on the guise of an engineering problem.” What I see is more evidence that it is time to engineer ourselves out of large-scale cattle production entirely.

While we may never know exactly what is going on in the head of any given cow, the scientific evidence shows that they are neurologically and cognitively complex conscious beings. Despite that fact, the food system still characterizes cows and other animals first and foremost as market commodities. More ideological than empirical, this default assumption provides cover for systemic animal abuses at the same time as it gives the eating public an excuse to ignore its own conflicted feelings about the animal production enterprise. The truth is, if we want to be serious and intellectually consistent about animal welfare, we must move away from a definition of cows as the mere property of humans, grant them the individual moral consideration they deserve, and pursue new and cleaner alternatives rather than invest in the messy ways of the past.

Of course, compared to other types of animals raised for food in American agriculture, the life of the cow is pretty good, regardless of whether they spend their final four or so months on pasture or in a feedlot. But this relative assessment should not be used to underestimate the real suffering these cows endure, while it also points to one of the central problems of the feedlot versus free-range debates. Indeed, that conversation tends to isolate animal welfare concerns about the “finishing” stages away from the other aspects of cattle production, which actually make up the majority of the cow’s life. Whether in feedlot systems or pastured, the dehorning, castration, and branding of cows remains a standard practice, often without any anesthetic or pain relief. Other stressors arise for the animals through processes of weaning, handling, auction, and transport, while their final trip through the slaughterhouse is at best a quick but violent death and at worst an agonizing struggle.

While many farmers do build real personal and emotional bonds with the animals they raise, it is the economic incentive, Splitter and others argue, that drives the push toward higher welfare practices. But that economic incentive cuts both ways, as a cost-benefit analysis can lead to situations in which it is simply not economically feasible to prioritize animal welfare above a variety of other competing demands, and it can even create perverse incentives that make cruel practices more profitable.

Splitter insists that feedlot innovation is better positioned to mitigate the pain and distress of cows than pasture is, but that hedged claim comes with a lot of contingencies and a low ceiling for animal well-being. There are indeed design fixes that can minimize just how bad things are for the animals, but these will always require a level of expert implementation and management that is often in direct opposition to the economic imperatives of the production system. There are also new biotechnological and gene-editing techniques that can address common health and welfare problems that these animals face, but the money and time required to move from research to widespread adoption is daunting. While I do recognize that interventions such as these can have targeted utility, it is both practically and ethically dubious to imagine a world in which suffering is fully managed, designed, or bioengineered out of a global cattle production system as vast as the one we’ve come to know.

Dismissive of the moral case, defenders of animal agriculture point to growing global demand for meat as the biggest reason why now is not the time to dramatically change course. What right do outsiders like me have to tell farmers and consumers what to do, and who am I to restrict high-quality protein from the rising billions of the developing world? This argument always seems to treat meat demand as an unchanging law of nature, ignoring the role that marketing and corporate infrastructures play in building that very demand. It clings to the view that consumer demand for meat products is almost impossible to change, despite the fact that we have seen dramatic shifts not only in amount but also in the type of animal protein consumed over the last several decades.

Yes, the world craves more protein, but there remain great opportunities to shape what that protein mix looks like in the years ahead. In a moment of demographic and technological change, what precedent will we set and what values will we embed within the protein production practices that feed the world? Where should we be investing our intellectual and financial resources? From the perspective of animal welfare, pasture-raised beef for all does not appear to be the answer, but doubling down on the feedlot approach is not a long-term solution either.

I’m not naïve enough to think that a wholesale transition away from animal food production is just around the corner, but if we really are committed to improving the welfare of animals, that should be the ultimate goal. Ecomodernism prides itself on a commitment to pragmatism and a belief that technology can help propel positive social change and sustainability. The market for meat-free protein sources is burgeoning around the world and can already be served by both traditional grains and pulses as well as by plant-based meat analogues. New innovations in cultured “clean meat” production open up prospects for a post-animal bioeconomy in which we have real meat without slaughter. Now is the ideal time to build the local and global infrastructures that will make for an economically, culturally, and gastronomically palatable transition.

When debates over animal welfare restrict the conversation to a future of feedlots or a future of free-range pasture, the discussion remains firmly entrenched in the frameworks of the past. Looking ahead, it is those efforts that aim to decouple meat production from the bodies of living, sentient animals that represent the more effective, innovative, and humane future of food.

Read more from Breakthrough Journal, No. 9

Featuring pieces by Rachel Laudan, Alan Levinovitz,
R. David Simpson, Mark Sagoff, Fred Block,
Julie Guthman, Brandon Keim, and more.